I’ve thought a lot about Frances Williams Preston lately. The legendary music industry executive and former president and CEO of Broadcast Music, Inc., very much responsible for turning Nashville into Music City, died last week at the age of 83. I worked at BMI for seven years, from 1998-2005, and was there for a couple of years before she retired. I enjoyed my work, and believe strongly in what the performing rights organization does. As a singer-songwriter myself, and as someone who can honestly say that music changed my life — maybe even saved it — on those nights I’d listen to rock radio on my headphones in order to escape what often felt like hell in my teenage years, I know how important it is that songwriters are fairly compensated.
But it was my work on behalf of BMI at the annual Country in the Rockies benefit event in Crested Butte, Colorado, that I truly loved. The event was dreamed up by Frances, and served to raise money for the T.J. Martell Foundation and its funding of cancer research at the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at Vanderbilt Medical Center. I was a behind-the-scenes, jack-of-all-trades guy at the event for several years. I worked with others on the brochures, program book and website leading up to the event. I wrote an occasional letter on behalf of Frances, and created multimedia slides for auction events. At the event itself, I did whatever was necessary. I ran the slides during the auction, helped out with publicity, picked up people at the airport, and even handled celebrities, including one year, Kenny Loggins. I was at the service of Frances and whoever else needed my help. The long week of work and very little sleep prepared me, I’m certain, for the work I’ve done with the Nashville Film Festival over the last six years.
But as much as I loved Country in the Rockies, BMI, Frances and BMI vice-president Tom Annastas (my dear friend and mentor and the reason I moved to Nashville in the first place), I left BMI in 2005. And I left because of Country in Rockies. The event was unique in that as much as there was celebrities and skiing and parties and food, and a bar that seemed to be open ALL the time, it never lost sight of why it existed. It was a fundraiser to help people. The joke was that that the work we were doing was really — you guessed it — curing cancer. Survival stories were shared. Videos were shown. And tears were shed. At the 2005 event, I met a man who was dying of pancreatic cancer. Much had been done to keep him alive, but his options had dwindled. He knew it. His family, who was with him, knew it too. He was amazing, living his life to the fullest, playing with his children and accepting his fate with an unparallelled grace. We became friendly, and not long after the event, I received a card from him and his family thanking me for my kindness.
I returned to Nashville after that event and told my wife I was leaving BMI.
You see, all those hours watching Frances give of herself so passionately, and with so much integrity and oft-times humor, was slowly having an effect on me. And the impending death of my new friend was pressing on me. Life was too short to live it without passion, without drive to truly have an impact on the world around you and the ones you love. Here was one person tirelessly living her life. He was another fighting off his tiredness for as long as possible.
At BMI, I was stuck. There’s only so much room for advancement and promotion in a not-for-profit-making company that treats itself like a non-profit, and that’s to its credit. I wanted to do more, and make a bigger impact, and honestly, maybe make a little more money. And there was nowhere to go. My supervisors, especially Tom and my immediate boss Michele Reynolds, were great fans of mine and my work. They tried to help, but their hands were tied.
So I left. I pursued my music for a while, touring and writing. I got decent critical reviews and some good college radio airplay. But it was hard to make a living. I have a journalism background, and started doing some freelance writing and PR work for Nashville publicist Cathy Gurley, who coincidentally, I met while working on Country in the Rockies. Funny how things work out that way.
I eventually found my way to managing media relations at Nashville Public Television, where I am today. It’s a job that for the last six years has also included doing publicity for the Nashville Film Festival.
BMI and Frances were never far from my mind, though, and as I became more immersed in film, I thought more and more that Frances’ life deserved a proper documentary. But documentaries cost money. While I have a bubbling desire to produce documentaries some day, I’m not there yet.
When I heard last year that Frances’ health was failing, I felt an even greater urgency to have her story told. NPT has a show called “One on One,” in which a prominent Nashvillian sits down for a half-hour discussion with John Seigenthaler, the great journalist and former assistant to U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy. I pitched my bosses on it and offered to produce, and they agreed within seconds. It took some time to get it scheduled, and get Frances’ photos gathered and scanned, but we made it happen.
Tom escorted Frances to the studio that day, and after the shoot, the three of us went to Sunset Grill for lunch. She told stories and we listened. When Tom and I told stories, she listened to us in the same way she described to Seigenthaler — just an hour before — President Bill Clinton’s ability to focus on the person in front of him, fully present as if no one else was in the room.
It’s a memory I’ll cherish. I wish I could have done more than that one episode of “One on One” to capture her legacy, but it was the least I could do for the person who built the company that gave me a job when I first came to Nashville, and worked hard to compensate the songwriters that for so many years have brought joy and meaning to my life. But ultimately, it was a way to give back for all that inspiration she’d given me.
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